Last week I shared the news that my photo of a tayra was Highly Commended in the Animal Portraits category of the 56th Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition.
This information, which I’ve had to keep secret since March, has been one of the highlights of 2020 for me. Learning a few months later that the WPY56 awards ceremony and related activities in London had been cancelled has been one of the year’s biggest disappointments. I was greatly looking forward to returning to the Natural History Museum and sharing the experience with friends and industry peers.
It remains a special honor nonetheless, and I wanted to share some thoughts about the award and the commended image, as I did with last year’s bison photo.
Getting That Email… Again!
March 6, 2020:
“The jury have left the building! After a week of energising, exciting sessions of critical review and debate, the judging of the Wildlife Photographer of the Year 56 competition has finished. They were thrilled with the high quality of entries and had a difficult task selecting their very best 100 images from over 49,000. We’re very excited to inform you that they have awarded your image ‘Top Picker’ Highly Commended in the Animal Portraits category. Many congratulations!”
It was pretty exciting getting that email. And it was a surprise, even though this year I had more photos reach the final round of judging than ever before. Up until last year I’d entered WPY off and on for ten years without landing any commendations, so I didn’t have any expectations on a quick repeat of the success in WPY55. Just hopes! But I can say that of all of my “finalists,” this was the image I thought had the best chance.
One might wonder if landing a “Highly Commended” spot is a letdown after being a category winner the previous year. Absolutely not (especially given that Animal Portraits had far and away the most submissions this year). I just remember feeling thrilled that I had somehow made it again. If anything, this proved (to myself, at least) that last year was not a fluke. And to do it in a different category with a completely different type of subject was particularly satisfying.
Of course, after one receives the email, it’s important to keep as quiet as possible about it… though the Sunday Times managed to leak my inclusion a couple weeks early!
I eventually learned that one of my friends, Zack Clothier, had been awarded this year as well after he started peppering me with questions about the ceremony. So we teamed up to plan a joint trip… which ultimately was not to be, of course.
I will definitely miss the camaraderie shared with my peers, the pageantry of the gala, the glorious setting of the Natural History Museum, the food(!), and of course, London. But there’s much to be excited about and thankful for. And hopefully I will finally have a chance to see the traveling exhibition if it returns to the Pacific Northwest, post-COVID.
What is a Tayra, Anyway?
One of the reasons I suspect the image appealed to the judging panel is that it’s an uncommon subject. The tayra is a pretty cool animal, that’s for sure. It’s no secret that I love mustelids (members of the weasel family), so I take some pride knowing one of my mustelid photos landed a spot in this year’s winning collection.
The tayra is a tropical cousin of animals like the marten, fisher, and river otter, among others, so naturally it shares many similarities with them. It’s a medium-sized (a little bigger than a house cat), sleek and fast critter that’s well adapted for life on the ground and in the trees. In fact, tayra morphology has some unique characteristics that make it better suited for terrestrial and arboreal movement than most of its cousins. It’s an excellent climber, and its bone and joint structure allows it to descend trees face down (something fishers also do).
A long, slightly rigid tail helps with balance, especially while climbing high up in trees. But on the ground it lopes. Many of its slender cousins are bounders. And while many weasel species are omnivorous, most of those subsist largely on prey… the tayra is more likely to be seen eating fruit.
I’ve seen only a few tayras in my life, one of the reasons this sighting was so special. In fact, I’ve seen far more tropical cats (ocelots, pumas, jaguars) than I have tayras. My first tayra sighting occurred in Costa Rica’s Corcovado National Park, the same place where the award-winning shot was taken. And I actually thought it was a cat at first. I spied a smaller dark shape running through the undergrowth, and was hoping I had just seen a jaguarundi. I was disappointed to learn it was a tayra, even though I had no idea what that was at the time (note: I have yet to see a jaguarundi to this day).
My next tayra sighting in Corcovado was similar. And this one was dashing off with a prize.
A fleeting glimpse, but any clear photo of a mustelid in a dense rainforest was a win in my book. I’ve never known weasels to stick around for too long. And that’s probably why, a few years later, I decided to sit at a lodge in Peru and wait for tayras to show up. It helped that I was on a hummingbird tour and had grown tired of photographing birds at that point. I was so eager to photograph a mammal that I made a rare exception to my “no bait” rule. The tayras had been coming in to take pieces of discarded bananas that the lodge left out, so I sat around in front of a box of moldy fruit instead of the hummingbird feeders for much of that rainy day. After several hours, they finally appeared. I included a couple of clips in my Peru Wildlife video:
I shot a little video, and it’s the only time I can remember photographing what was technically a baited mammal. Honestly, this is not my idea of a fun shoot (it’s why I’ve never bothered photographing the popular baited martens near Yellowstone), but it was nice to get a more of a prolonged look at this species after the brief glimpses in Costa Rica. I also noted the difference in coloration. South American tayras generally seem a bit lighter, with brownish fur and light chest patches, compared to the blackish ones I’d seen farther north.
The tayras in Peru provided a nice diversion on that day, but I was still lacking a truly satisfying encounter. We had a very brief glimpse of another tayra running across ranch land at dusk during one of my Costa Rica tours, but it wasn’t until the 2019 tour that we finally hit paydirt.
A Long, Slightly Uncomfortable, Fruitful Encounter
Once again, my guide Felipe (with whom I’d photographed that first Costa Rican tayra above) and I were on a jungle trail, this time while I was leading my tour extension with a group of hearty clients who chose to join me in Corcovado. And as with that previous encounter, we had a bit of a false alarm thinking there was a cat nearby. Felipe is particularly adept at finding pumas in the rainforest—we’ve seen seven of them together in Corcovado—and some alarm calls had alerted us to the possibility of another encounter. But as we walked into a rare clearing in the middle of the dense forest, Felipe spied something else.
The tayra was high up at the top of a tree, later confirmed to be a Panama rubber tree, searching for food. My clients had never heard of a tayra before, but they quickly sensed my excitement. I’d like to say we sprang into action, but the fact was that the tayra was almost straight up above us, a good 30-40 meters off the ground. It made for a very awkward shoot, especially with a big lens. I still haul my 600mm lens around on a tripod in the rainforest. It’s far from portable, and a bit of a hassle in dense undergrowth and on longer, sweaty treks. But in a dark environment, the wide lens aperture and stabilization provided by the tripod really help. Unfortunately, the latter wasn’t a ready option in this case. The tayra was perched at such a steep angle that the only way I could use the tripod was to use it as a monopod and, very unsteadily, lean backward to shoot up.
A couple of times I even took the lens off the tripod to try and shoot hand-held, but that wasn’t any easier. To compound matters, it was a tough scene to expose. A dark subject backlit against a somewhat bland sky doesn’t make things easy. I experimented with and without flash, hoping I’d be able to obtain some shots that didn’t look too artificial. In some cases, the flash was readily apparent as it bounced off the surrounding foliage.
In other cases, eye shine gave this monkey panther a somewhat demonic look.
Ultimately, some of the earliest non-flashed shots were the most successful. I recognized quickly that the very top of the tree where the tayra was foraging offered a unique setting. With branches, colorful leaves, and spiky fruit emanating from behind the central subject, there was a lot of potential for a very “graphic” image. In fact, the patterns, lines and shapes were so prominent, I wondered at the time if it would work well in black and white. Ultimately, the mix of green, yellow and orange foliage worked much better to surround the black tayra.
I was pretty happy just getting the opportunity to photograph it for a few minutes, but we were patient and it did finally descend toward the ground, which allowed for some closer photos. This was a beautiful animal, aside from a couple of engorged ticks on its face.
A mature male, it was quite muscular, and while it showed some curiosity toward us, it was pretty relaxed and quite tolerant. The tayra eventually moved all the way down to a low tree, where it decided to lounge on some branches until we left the area.
This encounter was the highlight of that trip, and definitely one of the photographic highlights of my year. Hopefully the exposure provided by WPY will serve as a nice way to introduce a wider audience to the tayra and give people a greater appreciation for the biodiverse treasures that can be found in our tropical rainforests.
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24″ x 22″ Fuji Flex paper prints, signed and numbered, set of 50: $850 + S/H.
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If you are interested in ordering last year’s Black and White winning bison photo, learn more about ordering options here.